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Reading 1-0 Middlesbrough: No Centre Backs? No Problem

A makeshift defence got Reading over the line for their first clean sheet of the season.

Reading v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

A second-half strike from Alen Halilovic and the first clean sheet of the season meant the Royals beat Middlesbrough deservedly 1-0. With no central defenders available, Pauno’s men showed (once more) great character and achieved a third win in a row.

Just when you thought Reading’s fortune had turned around after the wins against Peterborough United and Fulham, this week’s rumours of a points deduction and further heavy injury worries felt like (another) slap in the face.

As Veljko Paunovic stated before the game he only wanted to concentrate on football and not let the rumours from outside affect the players. But what surely affected him and his team were the injuries of Tom Holmes and Michael Morrison. The loss of both meant Reading didn’t have any senior defenders available, with Liam Moore, Tom McIntyre and Scott Dann all out already.

As a consequence Pauno chose a formation that included eight midfielders and two full backs! Dejan Tetek played as right back, Andy Yiadom (today’s captain) and Josh Laurent were the two central defenders with Abdul Rahman Baba on the left. Danny Drinkwater started in midfield while Junior Hoilett kept his place as lone striker up front.

Early tension as the visitors thought to have scored after just two minutes, but the goal was rightfully disallowed as the ball had gone out before. From that moment on it was a relatively quiet first half. The Royals were in control and managed to keep Boro away from their own area. More than 65% possession was proof of that. With two technically strong players like Yiadom and Laurent in defence and mainly midfielders on the pitch, the home side moved the ball around nicely. The only weakness was some lack of creativity in the final third.

It took until the 22nd minute for Reading’s first big chance. Tetek found Swift in the middle. His right-foot finish from 14 yards was parried away by keeper Lumley. That opportunity gave Pauno’s men some further confidence as they settled themselves into the visitors' half. In the 43rd minute Halilovic burst down the right wing and could only be stopped by Isaiah Jones. The resulting free-kick from the edge of the box was blocked by a Boro defender. Soon after both teams went into the break. No goals yet.

Reading v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

In the second half, it took again only two minutes until the first danger. This time Reading came close to scoring, and what a chance it was! Drinkwater sent TDB alone through on goal with a beautiful pass, but the low shot from the Watford loanee was not precise enough and cleared away by Lumley.

The Royals kept going now and were rewarded 10 minutes later with the 1-0! Swift played a lovely one-two with Hoilett and passed the ball into the middle to Alen Halilovic. The 25-year-old Croatian didn’t get the best of touches, but could still see his shot go past keeper Lumley and into the net. A deserved lead as the home side had clearly more from the game.

And Reading continued to play forward. Baba made another strong run forward down the left and found Hoilett inside the box, but the Canadian’s left-footed shot from a tight angle was blocked by the Boro keeper. While the Royals seemed already in control in the first half, they were even moreso in the second. It took Boro until the 74th minute to get close to scoring. A half cross, half shot from Olusanya into the middle was cleared by Southwood with a strong save.

Even though Middlesbrough regained some possession the Royals defended well and didn’t allow the visitors much space. In the 86th minute, Reading’s battle was boosted by Matt Crooks. Boro’s midfielder made a late lunge with a straight leg at Royals goalie Southwood and received the red card. Pauno then brought on young academy graduate Michael Stickland and George Puscas for Dejan Tetek and Junior Hoilett – both exhausted after some fine performances.

Boro threw everything forward, but the Royals stayed strong and battled hard to get that 1-0 lead over the line. And after long mine added minutes, it was full time! Reading rightfully beat Middlesbrough at the Select Car Leasing Stadium. Pauno’s men achieve the third win in as many games.

And under what circumstances! With Rafael, Tom Holmes, Michael Morrison, Tom McIntyre, Liam Moore, Andy Rinomhota, Yakou Meite, Lucas Joao, Felipe Araruna, Scott Dann and Femi Azeez, 11 senior players were out injured or not yet match fit. Exactly in this situation, we make it three in a row! Exactly when no central defenders were available (apart from the 19-year-old Michael Stickland) we managed to get our first clean sheet! A real team performance with every single player in the blue and white shirt giving his all. A win like that can overshadow all the negative news from the last week.

After the last international break and just three points in the league, the pressure on Pauno and his team was high. Would he get the turnaround? Four games later the only answer can be yes! Full credit to him. Full credit to the team. After the recent performances, I’m confident that even a points deduction wouldn’t break our neck. Come on Urzzzz!